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Developing Meaningful Player Character Arcs in Branching Narrative

March 21, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

A little background: During my years at BioWare, I found that despite the enormous amount of talent housed in the writing department, there were certain subjects for which we lacked a common language of craft -- a clear and broadly applicable way to discuss what worked, what didn't, and why. This article is an effort to remedy that problem for one particular subject.

Due credit goes to my former BioWare colleagues Cameron Harris (now of ArenaNet), who provided feedback on my notes for a previous iteration of this article; and Daniel Erickson (now of Bluepoint Games), who reviewed a near-final version and suggested I take it to Gamasutra. Thanks to Greg Rucka as well, whose blog posts on character arcs in Mass Effect helped inspire elements of this discussion.

Part One: Introduction and Definitions

Let's start with the basics.

Stories -- traditional stories, archetypal stories -- are about protagonists who go through difficult circumstances and who change or resist change because of those circumstances.

The change can be positive or negative. The protagonists can be heroic or villainous. The circumstances can be dramatic or humorous. Sometimes the "change" isn't so much a change of nature as it is the gradual unveiling of true character and motivations. But while there are exceptions, the sweeping statement above covers most stories pretty well.

Star Wars is about a farm boy who's caught up in a galactic war that pushes him to find the inner strength he's always lacked. Breaking Bad is about a science teacher who engages in an enterprise that changes him from an underachieving family man into a criminal mastermind. Friends is a sitcom about a group of young adults who are forged by the tumult of their jobs and personal lives into more comfortable, confident, mature members of society.

Most video games (particularly decision-based RPGs such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, Mass Effect, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Alpha Protocol, et al, which are this post's focus) are, structurally speaking, very traditional narratives. An RPG typically features a single protagonist throughout who makes difficult choices under trying circumstances.

Yet many RPGs fail to deliver a compelling character arc for the protagonist. The reason is clear enough: When a player is given control over the protagonist and the choices he or she makes, that player isn't (and shouldn't be) focused on the storytelling craft of generating a dramatic arc. Instead, the player is engaged in the moment, fulfilling whatever fantasy or aspiration drove the player to buy the game in the first place ("I want to be cool like James Bond" or "I want to be the scariest criminal around.")

It's very likely that the player will make the same sorts of choices throughout the game -- the player who starts playing Mass Effect as a heroic Commander Shepard who frowns on human xenophobia is probably going to make mostly positive Paragon choices throughout -- unless given a reason otherwise. The player who begins Deus Ex: Human Revolution as a brutal killing machine is doing so because that's the character he or she is keen on playing. Why would the player even want to change?

That's fine, of course, but it limits the nature of the story being told. There can be no tragedy, redemption, growth, or catharsis when a player unthinkingly maintains the same approach throughout a story. Nonetheless, I believe a transformative character arc is very much achievable in a branching narrative RPG, and results in a highly rewarding experience.

So if most players aren't ordinarily inclined toward change -- if players act as change-resistant human beings, not authors of a script looking to generate the most drama -- how do we develop a genuine character arc? And how do we dramatize the protagonist's inner life in such a way that the arc isn't merely in the player's imagination, but grounded by clear in-game results?

How do we change a game from a thought experiment ("I want to be a good guy soldier") to a genuinely immersive exploration of character?

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Gonzalo Daniel
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Amazing article, it really helps taking in mind these core concepts since all of a sudden you find yourself limited by player choice the moment you want to tell a story in a game.

The only thing that I still dont get on the player decision process in Mass Effect is the Paragon ("Good Guy") Renegade ("Bad Guy") reaction. Even when the article states that the player is open to re evaluate his/her decisions at some point in the game, the Paragon/Renegade scores don't allow that kind of change, since there are situations where the player is "punished" for not having enough paragon or renegade points when some tough decisions appear. That forces players to experience the game over 2 frameworks rather than giving the sensation of free will.

This case is also frustrating when you don't know these inner rules, and you stand on the moment of facing your decisions whether having a grim end, or reloading if not restarting the game and making all the "correct" decisions.

I try to make sense that maybe the writers wanted players to experience the story over 2 "frameworks" but still reducing the true sense of player choice.

Alexander Freed
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Hi, Gonzalo! I'd tend to agree that game systems encouraging players to "lock in" a certain kind of decision-making can be detrimental to the storytelling. I like alignment systems a lot, but they need to be handled with great care. (That's a whole other topic, though...)

I tried to cite examples of games that did particular things well, rather than looking for a single perfect example overall. As I recall, Mass Effect changed the mechanics of the Paragon / Renegade system with every game--clearly, there's always room for improvement!

Thomas Happ
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When I played through Mass Effect I always wondered if the game could react if I tried to play a character that changed from Renegade to Paragon or vice-versa. But it's kind of artificial if I myself am not changing. I'd rather the game just have the change be written into the plot and my branching decisions be made within those constraints.

Edit: Also of note, Mass Effect is my favorite RPG of all time.

John McMahon
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" That is, the player character is shown to experience a specific reaction -- or a set of reactions -- without player input.

This can damage or destroy the empathetic relationship between player and player character as control, once the keystone of the story experience, is wrested away... often accompanied by the player angrily shouting, "My character would never say that!"

Instantly, I was reminded of Shepard working for Cerberus in the second game. Lot sof people had that reaction. My character was a Survivor/Earthborn Paragon and to never have that exchange between Shepard and any Cerberus personnel about the lost of his squad to an apparant Cerberus mission (even though it was a "separate cell") really took me for a loop and caused me to dislike Mass Effect 2 for awhile until I just forced myself to resolve it.

Then Mass Effect 3 happened and made ME and ME2 my favorite installments. Still haven't touched ME3 since March/April of last year.

I don't want to seem attacking you or your work. I adore the franchise and I am enjoying reaidng you article. Thank you so much for your work and for this effort.

This is a really great perspective on the obstacles faced when developing games with these mechanics. I mean, Falout 3 forcibily made the player choose over themselves or another character to die. Even though the player just meant a mutant immune to radiation...then revived the player with no explanation in follow-up DLC.

When choice is a tool given to the player it really needs to be handled carefully.

Alexander Freed
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Hi, John. I should probably clarify that I never worked on Mass Effect during my BioWare time--it just makes a good point of reference as branching narrative RPGs go!

Your reaction is a good example of what we always need to strive to avoid, but it also illustrates the complexity of it all; since every player has his or her own conception of what the player character would do, it may never occur to a writer that some scenario doesn't fit with a specific rare-but-perfectly-reasonable take on the character. Testing can help, but it can't eliminate the problem. In the best scenario, you avoid the issue wherever possible and hope that players will forgive you if and when you err. (Having a high-quality product and story overall will help players' willingness to stretch their suspension of disbelief.)

And of course I've certainly made my share of unequivocal errors in my own writing--there's a huge difference between understanding a theory and implementing it perfectly. But the more we talk about these issues, the more we can intelligently recognize and correct them during design.

John McMahon
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Agreed, Alexander.

I don't want to dissuade anyone from taking this path, but it does require being very mindful of the choices given and what their potential impacts are.

Thanks for the links to Greg Rucka, they were very helpful. As pointed out BioWare didn't seem concerned about keeping track of Shepard's emotional moments. The only things tracked were relationships, choices, and character deaths. Outside of that, BioWare ignored it.

They made a big game and I know they stated a desire for a trilogy, I just don't think they truly had a map of where it was going.

There were definite retcons and some changes made between the first game and second. It lead to a tighter experience, but things were lost and it lead to an uneven story.

I understand when creating stories sometimes even though you have an outline, the "characters" or the emotional arcs wind up taking you, as a writer, to a different path. J.K Rowling had written the epilogue for the last Harry Potter book years before the first book was released. She wind up changing it cause some characters died and changed the last time to provide definite closure to the emotional arc of Harry's struggle.

I say that to mean, we could writers to have outlines and paths for all these choices and emotional moments for use later, but sometimes things change because they tend to do that.

I think it boils down to better ways to track what topics could be emotional moments for the character based on previous choices and being able to look them up as later stories are written.

Bart Stewart
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Player choice is both the biggest problem and greatest opportunity when writing story in character-based games.

By all rights, that unique interactivity ought to mean being able to create stories that live forever in a player's mind. Being able to decide how the protagonist behaves toward other people, and experiencing the reasonable consequences of those choices, should make game stories more personal than any other kind, and more memorable.

But that's also hard to do well because truly respecting player choice would mean a prohibitively expensive combinatorial explosion of possible outcomes. The creators of virtually every storytelling game have been forced to simply give up and supply an obviously implausible constriction of the story's end to one or a handful of pre-determined endings. It's never satisfying because it tells the player flat-out that, in the end, their choices didn't really matter, and all the promises of the early and mid-game were just illusions.

Story in games will continue to be a missed opportunity until writers and designers can figure out a creative language for sharing storytelling responsibility with the player. This article is a good step toward that goal.

One suggestion would be to consider -- in addition to games where the protagonist has dialogue choices -- games in which the protagonist is already a defined character, or where the protagonist is mute.

Good examples of the former style are the Witcher games by CD Projekt Red. Geralt of Rivia is already a well-defined person when the first game starts and throughout the second (and presumably third) game. Things happen, both around him and through player choices, and he does change. But the nature and timing of the core story/character changes come from the developer, with the player mostly along for the ride. It's not frustrating as long as the player understands that's how the game's story is meant to be experienced... but it's also not making full use of the interactive nature of computer games.

This is even more true for games like Valve's Portal and Half-Life 2, whose protagonists Chell and Gordon Freeman are entirely mute. (Even GLaDOS complains about that in Portal 2.) Things happen to them, and to the characters around them, but the player is not permitted any opportunity to express their version of the nature of the character they play. Chell and Gordon are basically human-shaped vehicles piloted through tunnels... and yet there are interesting stories being told in these games. The difference is that the characters who change are the supporting characters, whose personalities must be presented to the player character almost constantly and in big ways so that the player can see and care about the changes those characters experience.

The mechanical devices through which story works (or not) in these kinds of games could be useful for improving story in games where the player can change the protagonist's character. As a grammar for interactive storytelling is worked out, I hope the success of these kinds of games will be considered as well.

Chris Clogg
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Good article, and I agree with you Bart. I think games like Half-Life 2 are perhaps more like movies. You come to watch an amazing spectacle/ride and witness events/characters. There's certainly nothing wrong with this (in fact, so far I prefer these types of games). On the other hand, you have games (as mentioned in the article) where you yourself are the one making choices, and this is probably where the future of storytelling in games will go... probably to a point where you give ACTUAL voice responses yourself, and the NPC's would react, albeit hopefully better/faster than Siri lol.

Paulo Gomes
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Wanted to leave some related reading suggestions.

In "Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting", Robert McKee goes into detail regarding what can be considered "archetypal stories", classical arch plot of our modern times.
He discusses conflict (internal and external) and "change" (beats,events,...).

I would also take a look at Christopher Vogler's "The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers". It describes a story writing methodology that has been intensively used in cinema and games.'s_Journey:_Mythic_Structu

"But what we can do is help determine the theme of the story by framing it as a question."
I believe this has to do with what Michael Mateas describes as formal affordances in his "A preliminary
He discusses how one can provide agency to the player by balancing formal and material affordances. Simply put, formal affordances are what is communicated to the player it can do, through the interface story, theme, etc. Material affordances are what the player can do.

Andreas Ahlborn
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I think this article omits one thing that can help to give the player a sense of emotional weight even if the protagonist is mostly moved on rails through a story.

I experienced this first with Alyx in Half-Life 2 , that her reactions to the player really made a difference compared to most FPS on the market at that time. This trick, to give a player a companion to limit his choices in a meaningful way and to steer him/her in directions the story demands, is very well executed in the relationship between trip and monkey in Enslaved, it elevates the whole otherwise cliche-heavy Fight-Way-From-A2B-Storyarc.

Its also one of the reasons that the muteness of the Protagonist in Dishonored doesn`t work imo. Valve understood this. In Portal 2 the main humanity/individuality of the Player is mirrored through the lenses of GlaDOS/Wheatley.

Ken Levine gave a very insightful talk about the evolution of the companion here:

Allan Munyika
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Speaking from a gamers perspective there are a few problems I have about the way decisions are implemented in narrative RPGs:

1. Character archetypes: usually borrowed from other more static forms of media like film, tv, novels, comic books etc. These force me to think in a particular way and therefore to play the game in a particular way. This is of course a result of conditioning. Designers should place try and tell stories from other perspectives e.g. the villain, or a side kick etc.

2. Epic stories: the term narrative RPG is synonymous with the word epic, but truth be told players aren't intimatley familiar with what it means to be a "saviour of mankind" or with many of the roles and situations they are presented with in narrative RPGs. Designers need to cast players in more humble roles which resonate with players and present them with situations that they face in their day to day lives like what to do about a cheating spouse, or hoe to deal with troubled children, poverty, sucess, or just how to get to work. Stories like these would be more meaningful to players and therefore allow them to connect to the games on a deeper level.

3. Another problem I have with narrative RPGs is that they always require players to make decisions in a vacuum. Players are just presented with choices either without the outcome of their decisons being being made fully apparent to them or with emotionally shallow consequences. I think designers should place players in more detailed worlds with which they can interact and form an emotional connection with, that way thei decisions will be less affected by material gain (e.g weapons, armour, allies etc) and more affrected bu how much they care for that world.

Designers need to make games that are more focused on connecting emotionally with the player. The day when game developers can make a game inwhich a remark by an NPC can make the actual player angry, happy, or upset and make a decision based on this emotion is that day they will have suceeded. This isn't impossible, if you look at the way sports fans react to their favorite teams performance during the game. Fans although they actually have nothing to gain or lose in the outcome of a game still none the less react very emotionally during a game. Writers also need to study how people make everyday decisions by maybe keeping a diary and reviewing their own motives and how everyday situations affect how they make decisions.

Joshua Darlington
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Are there any computer RPGs that try to do something like Burning Wheel?

Nick Harris
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"A player character that evolves along with the player can't be demoed in fifteen minutes at E3"

Does this mean that publishers will be unwilling to fund this evolution of the medium even if developers see that it is essential to its maturity and critical acceptance? Probably, not. The cost of unexplored paths within branching narratives can preclude their inclusion. How many games are replayed to see all the endings? Is player agency over a prescripted set of narratives even the correct approach here?

Firstly, I would suggest that 'meaningful player character arcs are' only developed for trilogies and episodic games. Here the notion is that the feature cannot be advertised or demonstrated in the first game, but with subsequent games that follow the reappearance of the protagonist and recurring major characters allows a developer to create a "buzz" around the dynamic narrative arc on display. The players of the first game will compare notes on what ending they each got and anticipate where the next sequel or episode will take them and their character. The time intervals between each game release will strengthen the word of mouth into a keen fan base giving the franchise rare cult appeal.

Secondly, I wouldn't just rely on a prescripted branching narrative, but explore the potential of generating an emergent narrative that consistently reasserts its underlying theme by funneling the player into dramatic situations that were set up along their probable predicted natural path within a totally open world through a series of NPC entanglements forged along the way. To stop them breaking from their responsibilities on a whim there must also be a mechanism whereby the player is rewarded for how well they stay "in character": a role is chosen at the outset and they accrue "kudos" for how well they stick to the role, this can then be used to unlock more complex characters with more sophisticated arcs whose resolution may result in the player's deliberate heroic sacrifice. 'Game over', indeed the whole notion of survival and competition within the medium of videogames will seem anachronistic and people will start refering to them as adventures and then simply as dramas.

Eric Peterson
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First of all, I'm a huge fan of the Imperial Agent storyline in Star Wars: The Old Republic, precisely because it allowed me to play out a character arc that was a little more complex than what you normally see in MMO storytelling. In my case, my Agent started out as a loyal servant of the Empire, but certain events (without giving away too many spoilers) eventually pushed me to abandon that loyalty. At the end of the game, I literally agonized over a decision about whether to hand a certain item over to a certain person, even though it was the end of the game and I knew that decision wouldn't have any effect on anything. For my own personal sense of satisfaction, I felt like I had to make the right choice.

That being said, I think the idea of player choice is an interesting one. As others have said, many games really only give players the illusion of choice, since it doesn't make any difference "in the end". My question would be, is the conclusion the only thing that matters? If each player ends up at the same endpoint, does that mean that all the choices they made getting there are invalid? I don't think it does. Mass Effect 3 got a lot of grief for offering players "three different light shows" as their ending, but I found that criticism a little unfair. I'll admit, I was angry and slightly unsatisfied after the original ending, but after having a year to think about it, it doesn't really bother me.

Yes, if you meet a certain set of conditions, you essentially get the same ending no matter what you did in the 80+ hours prior, but that doesn't make the story any less powerful for me. The choice on Vermire has zero effect on gameplay, but that doesn't make it any less gut-wrenching. And while Shepard didn't have a "character arc" in the traditional sense, I found it equally satisfying to watch the character arcs of characters like Mordin, Legion, Garrus, and even Navigator Presley.

Getting back to the subject of player choice - I think that sometimes these choices suffer from poor writing and cliched archetypes that aren't believable on either end of the spectrum. As much as I love Knights of the Old Republic, many times your choices essentially boil down to "kick the puppy" or "save the orphanage". When writers only give players a choice between two extremes, writers can't be surprised when the majority of the players choose the same extreme 99% of the time. This is especially true when the choices are often comically obvious "Good Choice" "Bad Choice" scenarios. If you really want to create the conditions for narrative arcs, I think you have to look at the conditions that drive characters to change their behavior, and then create those conditions for the player.

Example: Let's look at a typical player who has no interest in a character arc. Let's call him "The Paladin". This is the player who would save every village and do every side quest to save a kitten from a tree if given the opportunity. If you want to challenge them to deviate from their behavior, don't be afraid to put in a scenario where the "good" decision has unintended consequences. For example: at one point in the story, you have the choice to kill or spare an individual who some in your party suspect may be up to no good. For the sake of ambiguity, let's say they haven't done anything wrong...yet. But after you spare them, they end up killing a fan favorite NPC ally. Does this experience make the player jaded and cold, and will they strike down every prisoner they take in the future? Or will they continue to be guided by their moral compass? If they do start going down that darker path, how do their companions react?

Bottom line: If players are never given a reason to deviate from their behavior, they're never going to do it. If you want to see heroes fall into darkness, and villains redeem themselves, the writing needs to provide a reason for that to happen.

Paul Laroquod
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The secret to giving the protagonist a good character arc in a video game is not to pretend as if the player *is* the main character. This is simply false. The player is not the protagonist -- the player is *directing* the protagonist. That is the actual truth here, and all we have to do in order to get to the promised land is to admit it openly and stop telling players that they are going to 'play a role' using a machine that can't actually understand roleplaying. Instead we give them directorial input into a personality that will not necessarily always think sympathetically with the directions he or she is receiving, or even always comply. Some games have ventured there as a kind of exceptionalism, but what we need is not exceptions to the rule. We need a new rule; which means we need to depose the hegemony of words like 'immersion', 'roleplaying', and 'player choice'.

Seamus Lowe
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This is probably the best advice I've gotten on this. I've been trying to come up with a good idea for a game and this helps know how to make it good. I think it's going to be about a secret project to turn someone into the ultimate weapon. I know it's over done, but I'm going to do it a little different.
-Seamus |